Ever wondered why pandas are black and white?

The California researchers who explained zebra stripes take a look at giant pandas

A new study has aimed to explain the reasons behind pandas’ black and white fur. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

A new study has aimed to explain the reasons behind pandas’ black and white fur. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire


Scientists in California say they have determined why giant pandas have such distinctive black and white fur.

In a study published in the journal Behavioural Ecology this week, researchers at University of California, Davis, said the markings are used for camouflage and communication.

Prof Tim Caro, the lead author of the study, said exploring the animal’s colour has previously been difficult, because there are no fully comparable species.

“Understanding why the giant panda has such striking coloration has been a long-standing problem in biology that has been difficult to tackle because virtually no other mammal has this appearance, making analogies difficult,” he said, according to the UC Davis website.

“The breakthrough in the study was treating each part of the body as an independent area.”

Researchers compared different areas of fur on the animal’s body with the colouring of 195 other carnivore species and 39 bear subspecies - relatives of the giant panda.

The colours were then matched to different “ecological and behavioural variables” to estimate the reason behind the patterns.

They found that a panda’s white face, neck, belly and rump help it to hide in snowy habitats, while the black arms and legs serve as camouflage in shade.

Unlike bears, which remain dormant in winter, pandas remain active, as they cannot store up enough fat due to a poor diet of bamboo.

The study suggests that dual colouration helps them in their year-round travel across different habitat types, “from snowy mountains, to tropical forests”.

However, the study says pandas’ head markings do not provide camouflage and instead aid communication.

Dark ears may convey ferocity to predators, it says, while dark eye patches could help them recognise each other or fend off competitors.

The panda paper is not Prof Caro’s first study explaining the fur patterns of distinctive animals. In 2014, he published a paper in the journal Nature Communications, which suggested the purpose of zebras’ black and white stripes could be to deter flies, including the horsefly and tsetse, from biting.